Personal Dictionaries

A video version of the article below!

One of the most fun aspects of English is collecting fancy words and learning them! What better way to do that than with a personal dictionary?

A personal dictionary is a little notebook that you keep. It can be any design that you want. (Mine has ladybugs on the front cover!) Every time you come across a word you don’t know, you write it into the book along with a definition and a sample sentence. You can even draw a little illustration, if you’d like!

Here’s an example:

Jun is reading Candyfloss by Jacqueline Wilson. He is enjoying it a lot and he knows most of the words. However, he eventually comes across a word he doesn’t know: ‘menace’.

First, he looks at the full sentence:

“You are a menace,” I hissed at him. “I wish you’d never been born.”

Wow, that’s pretty mean! Because of the negative tone of this dialogue, Jun guesses that ‘menace’ is an insult.

Next, he looks it up on his computer or regular dictionary:

Definition: “a person or thing that is likely to cause harm; a threat or danger”; “be a threat or possible danger to.”
‘Candyfloss’ by Jacqueline Wilson (what a lovely front cover!)

“But there are two definitions!” Jun exclaims. “How do I know which one is the correct one?”

Well, look at the word class of each definition: the first one (‘a person or thing that is likely to cause harm’) is for the noun version of ‘menace’. If we use menace as a verb, however, the definition changes to ‘be a threat or possible danger to.’ That means all we have to do is figure out the word class of our use of ‘menace’ – is it a noun or a verb?

Jun looks at the original sentence again to figure out the word class.

“Well,” he ponders. “The character is calling someone a ‘menace’. You can’t call someone a verb, can you? Like, ‘Hey, you are a dancing’! So…”

Yes, Jun?

“In this context, menace is a…”

You’re so close, Jun!


Hooray, you got it right! Since we now know that ‘menace’ is a noun in the original sentence, which definition fits it best?

“The first one: ‘a person or thing that is likely to cause harm; a threat or danger’.”

Exactly! So, now it’s time to write the word ‘menace’ into your personal dictionary. Let’s figure out what we can write:

  • Word = ‘menace’
  • Word class = noun (or verb, sometimes)
  • Definition (noun) = ‘a person or thing that is likely to cause harm; a threat or danger’
  • Definition (verb) = ‘be a threat or possible danger to’

Jun decides to write both the noun and verb definitions, so that his dictionary can be more accurate. Now he needs to write sample sentences!

“Why do I need to do that?” Jun crinkles his forehead in confusion. “I’ve already written what ‘menace’ means. Isn’t that all I need?”

Not quite! Sometimes, we can know what a word means but also not know how to use it in a sentence. Sample sentences can help us there!

Jun hums in thought. “Hmm. Can I use the original sentence from the book?”

Yes, you can! Good idea, Jun!

  • Sample sentence (noun) = “You’re a menace!” I hissed. “I wish you’d never been born!”

“What about the verb version? Can I use the sentence from the dictionary entry?”

Well, let’s see what it says.

The sample sentence is in grey.

‘Africa’s elephants are still menaced by poaching.’ How does that sound, Jun?

“I…um…” Jun hangs his head in shame. “I don’t really understand that sentence.”

That’s okay! That just means we need to make up a sentence for ourselves. We already know what ‘menace’ means, after all!

After a few minutes of brainstorming, Jun says, “I think I did it!”

“Jun is menaced by bullies every day at lunchtime.”

Wait! Is that true, Jun?
“Haha, no! I made it up for the sentence.”

Phew! Well, great job! Now we can write that sentence in your personal dictionary.

  • Sample sentence (verb) = “Jun is menaced by bullies every day at lunchtime.”

One last thing: we need to draw what a ‘menace’ is! This will help us to remember what it means. Why don’t you give it a go, Jun?

“I’m not a good drawer,” Jun said sheepishly.

No worries! It doesn’t have to be the Mona Lisa. Just draw whatever you think a ‘menace’ is!

A menace!

Aahhhhh!! What is that, Jun?!

“A menace,” he says, proudly.

Okay, well, if it reminds you of a menace, then it’s a good drawing!

So, let’s summarise what we have learned about personal dictionary entries:

  • First, find a word you don’t know
  • Try to guess what it could mean based on the sentence it came from
  • Look it up in a dictionary or on the internet
  • Read the definitions and see if you understand them
  • If not, rewrite the definition to something simpler (you can ask someone to help you!)
  • Same for the sample sentences: if the dictionary’s sample sentence doesn’t make sense, make up your own! You can also use the original sentence where you found the word.
  • Lastly, draw something that will remind you of what the word means!

And there you have it! Now that we know what to do, let’s create our own personal dictionaries! Happy word-collecting! 🙂

My own personal dictionary!